As I did expect, it is fantastical and ironic. But it is not light comedy. It is a story contrived to reflect on complicated, unresolved philosophical questions, with dark hints about the answers: how the brain really works and how its processes can be disrupted; the construction of memories, creating myths; the varied ways of negotiating our sexual obsessions, and, finally (finally!) time, space and death.
The setting: Millennia from now, when humans and other intelligent beings from other planets (some of them with 6 legs, multiple tongues, wings and metallic claws) have achieved relative peace in their competition to colonize the 6,200 or more known worlds in the universe, a big (7'4") 19-year old social misfit, homosexual and long drug user in a world that discourages that sort of thing volunteers for Radical Anxiety Termination to turn him into a "rat", an anxiety-less and thus ambition- and curiosity-less human used as a slave by the more-or-less corrupt state industries. His partial recovery of his mental faculties and belated discovery of emotion, described mainly by the short, stocky interworld traveler and industrial diplomat (ID) Marq Hyeth, his perfect love object, is the central story around which we witness many other relationships, experiences and memories. And hovering over all of it are two massive, possibly related conflicts which may threaten them all: first, an internal rivalry among the federated worlds between a fundamentalist political-ideological movement called the Family (apparently the inventors of Radical Anxiety Termination) who want everyone and everything to be controlled and orderly and invent exquisite punishments for those who are not, and the more tolerant, laid-back, open-to-experimentation Sygn; and beyond them, outside any known federation, a mysterious and immensely powerful system of beings who offer no communication to the others, the Xlv, whose intentions are unknown but, if hostile, may be spell disaster.
The book is full of invention, with new worlds and new sorts of intelligent beings and new technologies with strange names appearing in every chapter, almost on every page. Which often makes it very difficult to figure just who is having sex with whom, and how they're doing it, or what's really going on in the dinner parties. (There's a lot of explicit, sloppy sex, but unless you're attracted to six-legged evelmi with shiny scales, or have an opportunity to stroll or float through a love-park on one of the Sygn controlled worlds, it will be beyond reach for you.)
My favorite parts include the long first section, before Marq Hyeth even appears, where we witness the brain-zapping in the Radical Anxiety Termination Institute and its consequences — which include the inability to take in new information from the General Information (GI) network which other humans and evelmi (those six-legged, winged- beings with all the tongues) use to learn new languages or access whatever data they want. This is because, as the high-ranking interworld official Japril explains,
"It's precisely those 'anxiety' channels which Radical Anxiety Termination blocks that GI uses both to process into the brain the supportive contextual information in the preconscious that allows you to make a conscious call for anything more complex than names, dates, verbatim texts, and multiplication tables; and it also uses them to erase an information program in such a way that you can still remember the parts of it you actually used consciously." (Pp. 161-162 in my edition.)Wow! So all that we would give up if we lost all anxiety. That is a heavy thought. If I were a rat, i.e. if I had been subjected to blockage of my "anxiety" channels, I might be able to repeat that paragraph but I would never fathom its meaning. The novel is full of rather surprising, often profound, usually wittily stated observations.
Another delight is the dragon-hunting chapter. I won't tell you more. You just have to experience what happens in Dyethshome when you go on a dragon hunt. The final chapter comes as somewhat of a relief from all the interminable invention and learning of new creatures, habits, worldscapes. For here Marq Dyeth recalls his earlier life, which helps bring some coherence to the jarring, seemingly chaotic space travels we have just gone through.
Here's what Wikipedia through Google (our primitive version of "GI") tells us about the ebullient and creative Stephen R. Delany. And here's something else I found when I looked him up. Delany doesn't even appear in this first part, but it's in his spirit. Check out this video, The last angel of history.
This is not directly relevant, but fun: a view of some of those 6,200 worlds from our own little planet, in Terje Sorgjerd's video, The Mountain on Vimeo.